Theatre is an art form of proximity. A roomful of people all focused on the same thing. This is true even in the most cavernous of West End venues – the ‘in-the-roomness’ is part of the pleasure. You’re sharing air with performers and fellow audience members. In most fringe venues, you’re likely sharing more than that, crammed hip to hip – I once got some of Jude Law’s spit on me at London’s Young Vic and in When It Breaks It Burns, performed last month at Battersea Arts Centre by a group of young people from Brazil, I was invited to stand beside them and share their story.
Now these things are no longer possible. Our ideas of distance are shifting. The term ‘social distancing’, unfamiliar to most a couple of weeks ago, is now central to our day-to-day lives. The conjunction of those two words remains jarring – to be social is to be close. It’s a shared coffee, a reassuring pat on the back, a hug. There’s a reason Karen Carpenter didn’t sing: “Just like me, they long to be six feet away from you.”
It’s been suggested that a better term might be “physical distancing” because it creates less cognitive dissonance. But the irony is that people practice social distancing all the time, often with some of the most vulnerable in our society: the troubled, the homeless, sometimes even with our own neighbours. We’re skilled at steering around those with whom we’d rather not interact. We’re good at erecting mental fences.
In the UK, we’ve also just spent the last three and bit years increasing our distance from the rest of Europe, and I wonder how much of a role this played in our failure to appreciate the severity of the situation. Even as the death toll rocketed in Italy, there was a sense that this is happening somewhere remote, over ‘there’, unconnected from us and our lives.
When the Tate Modern installed Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth in 2007 – the crack in the concrete floor of the Turbine Hall – I remember being struck by how many people tried to take a picture of it, to capture the gap in a single image. It seemed an impossible task, to take a photograph of an absence, and yet it feels like the events of the last few weeks have enabled us to do just that; to visualise the cracks and gaps in our world, the absence of safety nets, the distances between us. It’s certainly shown up just how financially precarious life is for so many people in the theatre industry.
As performers and creatives get to grips with what it means to be a theatremaker during this period of distancing, many companies have started to make existing work available online. In the UK, you’ll soon be able to watch work by the National Theatre from your sofa for free. The Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Opera House have joined forces with new arts streaming service Marquee TV and Shakespeare’s Globe Player has become a treasure trove.
Many European theatres are ahead in this regard. Berlin’s influential Schaubühne Theatre is already streaming a different show a day. Paris’ Odéon Theatre will be releasing work regularly. Slovenia’s Mladinsko Theatre and Serbia’s Yugoslav Drama Theatre are moving their archive online. You don’t have to dig around on YouTube for long before encountering work by Finnish, Estonian and Kosovar theatremakers. With travel no longer an option, the opportunities to watch a wide range of international work have greatly increased.
Our screens are becoming windows, not just into our friends’ and colleagues’ living spaces, but into theatres around the planet. It’s a small thing, given everything the world is facing, but there’s real value in being able to watch work from other countries. It’s a reminder both of how interconnected we all are and the impact that theatre can have in different cultural contexts. This is crucial as we start to think about what the industry – and the world – will look like after coronavirus. Because it will look different, and many things we cherish will likely be lost.
It’s understandably hard to think about the future while you’re still reeling, still adjusting, still holding on to what was, but we have time on our side. Urban life leaves little room for reflection.
This is particularly true of the UK theatre scene, with its constant stream of new openings. Its treadmill-like tendencies. Opportunities to pause are scarce. This situation presents us with an opportunity to slow down, to look outwards rather than inwards, to learn from other models of making, and, above all, to think about how, when this is over, theatre might be one of the tools that allows us to bridge the distances between us – to collapse some of those gaps.
Natasha Tripney is The Stage’s reviews editor and joint lead critic. Read more of her columns and reviews at thestage.co.uk/author/natashathestage-co-uk/